A Tale of Two Galleries

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Week 8 Reflections (Part One), MA Falmouth University

In the last week I have visited two galleries in Birmingham.  Here are my observations;

Royal Birmingham Society of Artists

Photographic Prize Exhibition 2017

16th February – 10th March 2017

This is a bi-annual open invitation photographic exhibition and prize. It attracts photographic artists from across the UK.  The 2017 exhibition attracted 270 entries and 61 were selected.  There was no theme and thus the work was mixed in scale, content and colour/monochrome.  Some work was film based and reached across to iPhone images.

The society is dominated by artists (who have regular debates about the role of photography with the arts) and 4 judges were appointed to make the selection.  A modest application fee applied.

The building is located just off Birmingham’s only Georgian Square, St Paul’s. It has galleries placed on 3 floors with meeting spaces in the basement.  The photography exhibition was positioned on the entirety of the second floor, meaning that only dedicated visitors were likely to make it up there.  Simultaneously a craft based show was on the ground floor and paint based art on the first level.  The building is relatively well known in Birmingham but does not have a vibrant frontage and as the (rapidly gathered iPhone based) images on the next pages illustrate, the principal space used for photography is cluttered with radiators, seats, window blinds, lift floors and niches.  The walls are painted in matt emulsion which is the most appropriate colour for a mixed show and is easily patched up.  The ceiling heights are low and the lighting rather basic making for a large amount of reflection.  All the work, with one exception (a piece from one of 4 invited artists), were mounted in glass fronted, wooden frames in white or black.  The works were mounted using small metal tabs screwed to the back of each frame and then in turn screwed into the walls. The exhibition perhaps inevitably creates a tension between pieces with presentation jarring at numerous points and in a few cases being hung in small portions of wall between architraves and other clutter.

The literature was basic and typed out rather crudely making navigating around the show awkward as the numbering system did not accord with the layout of the work.  The values asked for varied between £125 to £2,000.  Most were limited to a small run of prints.  It was not clear which if any of the work had sold, as the traditional red dots were not visibly used throughout which, in my opinion, was a lost opportunity to demonstrate the worth of the work and indeed the show.  At the closing party on 10th March, which was well attended by circa 60 people, seven prizes were awarded.

I was privileged to have a print in the show which was my first to be selected for inclusion in an exhibition.

In discussion with a local and prominent photographic historian, Pete James I was delighted to to be provided with a scan of the catalogue and map of the RBSA photography exhibition in a rather grand beaux-arts plan building on New Street in Birmingham in 1898 (see illustrated catalogue) where the work was set into 5 classifications, landscape, seascape, genre/figure studies, architecture and appropriately for the age, lantern slides. It is fascinating to know that there is a worthy thread of history running across 3 centuries delivering photographic exhibitions in Birmingham.

The RBSA web site is clear and fully up to date http://www.rbsa.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/current/

 Argentea Gallery

‘Swift as a Shadow’

Sophie Hedderwick

16th February – 25th March 2017

 Argentea Gallery opened in the Autumn 2016.  It is owned by Jenny Anderson who grasped the opportunity to launch this private gallery in a recently vacated high-end fashion retail unit in a listed building on St Paul’s Square, some 100m from the RBSA Gallery.

It opened with ‘Notes for an Epilogue’, by Hungarian photographer Tamas Dezso, depicting images of a time of transition in Romania and Hungary following the fall of Communism in the late 1980s. This featured large scale prints on the entry level of the gallery.  The work was visible from the square outside through the large twin arched windows which seem to naturally encourage the inquisitive passer-by and buyer inside.

‘A Lover’s Complaint’, by Edinburgh-based photographer Robin Gillanders, comprises a series of intimate, black and white still life images which were a response to Roland Barthes’ 1977 book “A Lover’s Discourse” was hung in the basement which is accessed by a spiral stair.

The finishes in both spaces are of a high standard with plastered walls painted white on the principal level and grey in the lower areas.  The lighting has been well considered and is sufficiently high so as not to interfere with viewing.

The owner is always present during opening hours and is knowledgeable about photography, artists both nationally and internationally and her clients.

There is a consistency about the literature, web site and banding on all platforms and it is cool, grey and white reflecting the aesthetic of the shoes gallery.

Anderson, in discussion yesterday said that she selects the artist she wishes to work with to reflect the diversity she aims for, her client base and contacts.  She may seek to appoint a selection group of advisers in future.

 The current show is a series of medium to large scale prints on acrylic and aluminium largely made up of a dancer using LED lights on her costumes, inspired by Degas’ Little Dancer aged Fourteen.  The work is eloquent and highly consistent, capturing off-guard moments as well as the grace of movement.  Two pieces had sold when I visited the gallery on 14th March. The work is hung from a wall/ceiling mounted rail system.  A number of small photo books and Polaroids were also for sale. I am interviewing Sophie Hedderwick about her work, approach and this exhibition on 17th March, so keep a look out for my next blog from that discussion. Her main prints were valued at £600 – 900.



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